I received an advanced reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog Woden and in fact won (and declined) another copy in a contest. This book is the 2017 Stella Prize winner, so already it had very high expectations to be met.
“The Museum of Modern Love” by Heather Rose is a novel based on a real piece of performance art that was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “The Artist is Present” was both a retrospective and performance piece performed by Marina Abramović. As Abramović sits for 75 days, and people line up every day to sit across from the famous artist and look in her eyes, others gather around to watch the performance. Jane Miller, a teacher and new widow who has taken a holiday to escape her grief. Arky Levin, a successful composer whose wife has left him and made him promise not to follow. Healayas Breen, a journalist and friend of Levin’s. Brittika van der Sar, a PhD student from the Netherlands. Then there is Abramović herself and the mysterious narrator who appears to be watching over her. The performance continues, every day, and the audience becomes a community linked together by this once in a lifetime experience.
This book just didn’t do it for me. Maybe it was reading another book about the highly glamourised art world after reading not one but two recently, including the 2015 Stella Prize winner, but I think that wasn’t quite it. A very large proportion of this book is dedicated to chronicling the life of Marina Abramović, and at times this book felt almost more like a biography than a novel. I understand the author actually herself attended “The Artist is Present”, and I think I would have enjoyed her own experiences more. To me, for the most part, it seemed like it was piggy-backing on someone else’s creation. In this vein, I was frustrated by the almost incessant pop-culture references throughout this book. In a similar way to “The Elegance of the Hedgehog“, (which this book even references at some stage as an example of a great book, so there you go), there was a consistent undertone of cultural snobbery that irked me.
I also found some of the commentary in this book a bit grating. For a lot of the book, whenever somebody sat down in front of Abramović, Rose described a man with an angelic face, or a woman with strong jaw, unless they were anything other than white, in which case it was a “black woman” or an “Asian man” with little to no other description. I just feel like in 2017, if you’re going to point out a person’s ethnicity, you need to point out EVERYONE’s ethnicity. White is not default. Other comments that left me frowning included things like:
- “What sort of Japanese child read Tennyson? Levin wondered”;
- “There are visitors from Brooklyn, Bombay, Berlin and Baghdad. Well, perhaps not Baghdad, because that is a war zone of broken buildings, dust, heat and not a bird to be seen”;
- “It will all be about money and the Chinese. Who wants that?”; and
- “But Harlem had been making itself over for millions of years. Before white and black, there were Indians, and before Indians there had been mastadons and bison”.
Then there was the character of Levin. I resented every second of air time Levin was given, and I resented how we were supposed to empathise with basically the world’s worst husband. Jane, Healayas, Brittika and even Levin’s daughter were all far more interesting characters and I think should have been emphasised more in this story. Instead we’re forced to watch as Levin sacrifices his family for his own career and then give him a gold star when staring into a woman’s eyes gives him the courage to do the bare minimum required for an active participant in a marriage.
Ultimately, I think there are two kinds of readers: the readers who will enjoy books like “The Museum of Modern Love” and “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”, and those of us who won’t. Maybe this will be the book for you, but it wasn’t for me.